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Crossfire in Fat City

An exchange.

3:45 PM, Jun 3, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Letting their anger get the best of them, my prosecutors claim that "he admits that he didn't keep up his scientific research or act with integrity as a teacher." Another fabrication. I never said or implied any such thing. The last professional paper I published—after my promotion—was accepted by the leading journal in my field. According to Risman, Bridges, and Orum (RB&O), I have successfully scammed dozens of editors and reviewers, as well as the American Sociological Association—having won its prize for the best theory paper of the year.

RB&O put these words in my mouth: "I took advantage of the system for years." They also claim that I "admitted departure from academic norms." Both spurious. The article was about what is possible in the system. I admitted to no wrongdoing in teaching or research. I could have written exactly what I wrote having published a dozen books and scores of articles (which, alas, I did not). Did I never take advantage of the looseness of system? Can anyone make this claim?

Risman, having joined the department after my reviews and promotion, has likely read nothing of what I wrote. Bad enough. But Bridges and Orum know full well the honors I have received in the profession and that a (small) literature has clustered around some of my work. Such dishonesty approaches slander.

Note the dogs that didn't bark. There is no reference to the way sociology, and especially our department, has been politicized. Anyone doubting this need only take a stroll around the department. The devotion to various political causes can be seen on posters proudly arrayed. Not publicly visible are encouragements to the faculty to teach "social justice." In one case, a faculty member was celebrated for motivating students to become activists. Yet they sneer at me for riding "an ideological hobby horse."

I suggest that my prosecutors read Weber (Politics as a Vocation: "a lecture should be different from a speech") or Stanley Fish (Save the World on your Own Time) to see that propagandizing under cover of scholarship is a kind of fraud: a disservice to students, taxpayers, and scholarly norms. Political preaching is far worse when it occurs in the political monoculture that is the university.

The corruption of sociology can be conveniently illustrated. Joe Feagin has written dozens of books and articles addressing race relations. Having received numerous awards and honors, including invitations to speak at UIC, he was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1999. Nicely demonstrating Orwell's aphorism that there are some ideas so preposterous that only intellectuals can believe them is Feagin's understanding of race relations in this country: our civil rights progress is "tantamount to turning off a few of the ovens at Auschwitz." This was a mere eight years before Barack Obama was elected president. That someone so perceptually and morally deranged could be so honored by the ASA tells us that Harvey Mansfield is on to something in characterizing sociology (and his own discipline of political science) as a "Meathead Major." This despite the fact that some sociology, including much produced by my former colleagues, is first rate.

Nor do RB&O address the issue of retirement benefits. Already receiving, or in line to receive, $100 k+ per annum for life I wonder if they could defend this without blushing—or gagging. They probably could. Professing to defend "public sector employees from janitors to judges" (judges?), my critics don't realize that, in a time of scarcity, the cost of their benefits will be borne by the needy and powerless of Illinois.

The data I present on the advantages of government employees are dismissed as "factoids," which I suppose means facts you don't like. Interesting, that these proud champions of scientific research easily dismiss findings that don't suit their preferences even when presented by Alan Kreuger of Princeton. Is the data on K-12 education factoids? Do they join the shrinking pool of union hacks and their political lackeys—which does not include Obama—in defending public schools?

So, too, they dismiss data (Neal Gross of Harvard) on the ideological homogeneity of universities. Philip Tetlock of Berkeley—whose book on the failures of social science prediction (Expert Political Judgment) won numerous prizes including two from the American Political Science Association—is also dismissed as a purveyor of factoids. A nice demonstration of how politics corrupts scholarship.

It is unfortunate that I need to address these assaults on my character and distortions of what I wrote. Attention ought to focus on the issues I raised in "Fat City":

(1) the unsustainable retirement benefits drawn from a crashing economic system.

(2) the privileges of tenure.

(3) the light teaching load and the cushy life of the professor. (In Academically Adrift, Arum & Roska present these disturbing "factoids": After two years of college 45 percent of students had made "no significant gains in analytical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communication." After four years 36 percent showed no gains. While many factors are involved, including lax admission standards, 32 percent of students reported that in their previous semester no course required as much as 40 pages of reading per week. This may understate the problem: those not in college may make comparable gains.)

(4) the use of the classroom for political preaching in a political monoculture. (Can we expect taxpayers to fund ideas, like Joe Feagin's?)

(5) public funding of esoteric academic inquiry. (Maybe it's self-interest, but I could be persuaded on this.)

(6) the doubts Tetlock, Mansfield, and others have raised about the scientific value of sociology.

(7) the advantages of government workers and the failures of K-12 education.

Can anyone doubt that these issues need open debate?

I must admit that I hesitated about writing "Fat City." I did not like tainting those of my former colleagues who were indeed "prodigious researchers." There is no personal bitterness in my article; indeed, I acknowledged that I felt well treated by the department: "My colleagues, to their credit, promoted me to full professor knowing my ideological heterodoxy."

I expected anger and perhaps a sense of betrayal: the dilemma that any whistleblower faces. Naively, as it turns out, I did not expect a cocktail of bile and venom and willful distortion.

Which leads me to conclude that "Fat City" needed to be written.

David Rubinstein is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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